Post-Mortem: ‘The Playboy Club’

To the surprise of nobody, NBC canceled new drama “The Playboy Club” Tuesday after just three weeks on the air. But here’s the rub on the TV season’s first cancellation: The series was hopelessly misunderstood before it even aired.

How’s this for heresy: “Playboy” actually wasn’t as bad as its critics made it out to be. The problem was that the series’ baldfaced appropriation of “Mad Men’s” retro stylings gave too many viewers the impression it was aiming to be a similar show when it was anything but.

“Playboy” was never intended to be the psychologically complex, novelistic work “Mad” was. A more apt comparison might have been a past NBC series: “Las Vegas,” another sexy, bubbly soap set in a nightclub setting without a substantive thought rattling around in its empty pretty head. The plot was nothing more than a pretense for giving its gorgeous cast something to do while the cameras were rolling. That “Playboy” just happened to be set in the 1960s was besides the point, an element borrowed from “Mad” but that’s where the comparison should have ended.

Of course, it’s not like “Playboy” wasn’t inviting that comparison. Series star Eddie Cibrian not only looked like Don Draper, there were scenes with his velvety voiceover that sounded exactly like Jon Hamm’s speech patterns. But “Playboy” sought to repackage the bygone era so exquisitely depicted in “Mad” for broader consumption, but critics confused the wrapping paper with the gift inside.

Compounding “Playboy’s” problems was the absurd witch hunt that watchdog groups like Parents Television Council mounted before the series aired based on completely unfounded assumptions about the series’ content, which was no racier than anything else on primetime TV. Because these kind of manufactured controversies end as serving nothing more than free marketing, this became another, unintended way of distorting public perception so that it disconnected from the reality of the show.

The audience was probably somewhat comprised of prurient eyes ready to see some free over-the-air skin who came away sorely disappointed. Aggravated as NBC was by the witch hunt, it probably drove more eyes to the series than anything else. Without PTC, “Playboy” might have performed even more pitifully–we’re talking “Free Agents” level.

But NBC and “Playboy” producers aren’t entirely victims of circumstances beyond their control when it came to setting expectations for what the series was. They made the bizarre move of trying to position the series at its Television Critics Association press tour appearance in August as some kind of ode to female empowerment, which came across as a desperate reach for a series grasping to find some kind of redeeming quality that wasn’t there. “Playboy” never really knew what to do with itself; at least “Vegas” knew it was a truffle, nothing more. 

Lastly, let’s not forget the more practical consideration that is time slot. Even if “Playboy” was a great show, it was going up against two stalwart dramas in CBS’s “Hawaii 5-0” and ABC’s “Castle,” not to mention “Monday Night Football” on ESPN; upside was severly limited. Perhaps that should come as some small comfort to the “Playboy” cast and crew; even if it didn’t suffer so many perception problems, it was doomed from the start.

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